I’ve done some research and reading about Isaac Newton, as he’s a major character in Principia. I tend to think of my character as “90% Newton,” because while he’s mostly the Historical Newton (at least until December 1684, when he meets Jonathan Lennon), I have taken some liberties. I’m also taking a few of the real Newton’s better known characteristics, and exaggerating or developing them.
But I have yet to delve into the giant biography of Newton, Richard S. Westfall’s Never at Rest, which has been haunting my desk for six months. But I shall, I promise.
Here are 12 surprising facts about Isaac Newton. I’ve taken care to find sources for some of these, as many of the “facts” that float around the Internet, especially on historical matters, tend to be decidedly non-factual. (Here are a few hints: the Nazis were not socialists, Jews did not build the pyramids, and the vikings did not wear horned helmets.)
- Isaac Newton was born three months prematurely on Christmas Day, 1642, Julian calendar. (I was born two months prematurely on Christmas Day, Gregorian calendar. This is a meaningless coincidence.)
- Newton never married, and it is likely that he died a virgin (although, see fact 12).
- Newton attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he would later teach — but he went there to study law, not mathematics or Natural Philosophy.
- While a student at Trinity, Newton supported himself by working as a subsizar, a student who acted as a servant to another student of higher station.
- When doing his groundbreaking research on optics, Newton found the ground glass lenses available to him insufficient. But he was already in possession of a far superior lens — the one in his eye. He manipulated his eyeball with a bodkin, a blunt needle, ignoring the discomfort to perform his observations.
- Although Newton’s scientific and mathematical worked changed the course of human history, he spent the vast majority of his academic years at Cambridge pursuing theological studies and the pseudoscience of alchemy.
- While Newton is venerated by rationalists and secularists for his contributions to science and human knowledge, the man himself was deeply and profoundly religious.
- However, while nominally affiliated with the Church of England, Newton secretly held theological beliefs that were widely considered blasphemous at the time. It appears that, in particular, he did not believe in the Holy Trinity, and thought that worshiping Christ as God was idolatry.
- Newton was a Member of Parliament, representing Cambridge University in the Convention Parliament (1689–90) after the Glorious Revolution, and again in 1701–2.
- Newton was appointed Master of the Royal Mint, and pursued strenuous efforts to eliminate counterfeiting, including having a number of people executed.
- Newton was knighted in 1705 not for his scientific endeavors, or even for his work with the Royal Mint, but most likely as a reward for his political support.
- Newton shared rooms at Trinity with another man, John Wickens, for 20 years, from 1663 to 1683. Neither man pursued any kind of public romantic relationship during this period. Such a living relationship, if platonic, would have been quite common at the time. It has been suggested by some modern observers that this friendship may have hidden something more; but there is no evidence one way or the other.
My attitude with Principia is that if I (unintentionally) make a historical mistake, I definitely want to hear about it. The same with this blog post! And if you know any other interesting facts about Newton, post them below!